Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How I Learned to Write

In elem school, I hated writing. I had no idea how to think up a story, & so every other year, when we had to fill in those big blank books with our own words & pictures, I sat frozen. I ended up rewriting stories I knew—Little Bear became Little Dog, because I couldn't imagine anything else. And so I hated writing, & I floundered.

Until 5th grade, when I had this amazing teacher who actually taught us to write. We spent the year writing stories, and the other kids would beg to hear mine. I was a really, painfully shy kid, so the attention was...good. It sort-of thawed some of the fear, you know. Anyway, when we got our big blank books that year, I was thrilled with the possibilities instead of stuck.

So what did she teach me? That good story-telling comes primarily from observation, & that good observation takes more than a paragraph to tell, & that that's ok. That a good story is as long as a piece of string. That when you register by yourself at a hotel & you're a woman, you should simply use your 1st initial, so that no one knows a woman is staying there alone.

From that time on, I earned straight As in English classes, won awards for my writing, & settled into the idea that writing was what I could do well. I breezed through GT & AP English in high school & graduated early.

Somehow, though, someone forgot to tell my Freshman Comp teacher in college. Imagine the shock when I received an F on my first paper. Through many tears, though, & talking through what she wanted, etc., I left my 2nd paper w/ her & actually hugged her. Now that I know her reputation, um, that was probably a first for her.

I failed the 2nd paper. At that point, it was obvious that it was her, not me, so I filled out the necessary paperwork to drop her class while she was administering the midterm exam & dropped it by her office afterward.

She ripped it up & excused herself to go start the next class's midterm. I sat in her office in shock once again. This woman was insane. She terrified me. And she was coming back, & I was no longer armed: my drop slip was in her trash bin.

Dr. Whosit & I sat in her office that afternoon with a paper between us & in less than 30 min, she made me understand what she wanted. It was a formal essay, & I'd never had to write one before. It wasn't hard; it was just different. Sentence fragments that can be added for great effect in casual or creative writing were automatically wrong in formal essays. It took longer for me to accept it than to learn it.

Since then, I have only received two Bs on papers. The rest have been As, & I've gone on to earn a BA in English & an MEd in Teaching. I've taught writing to high school & college students—even some grad students preparing for the MBA entrance exam. I received a perfect score on the writing portion of the GRE—all because Dr. Whosit tore up my drop slip.

Since then, she's been promoted to head of the English Dept. at that college, & she's complained to me that I got my master's in Education instead of English, so she can't hire me. It's a quiet compliment, but I take it...because she still scares me a little.

So what did she teach me? Primarily that there are different kinds of writing, but also that there are things in the world such as thesis statements & comma splices. Lovely, concrete rules for grammar & punctuation that not a single teacher in all my grade school & high school years taught. Some that they even taught wrong!

So you want to know about the Bs. Comp 2 is supposed to be How to Write an Argumentative Essay—for freshmen. But I had a brilliant grad student who didn't know how to water down the information for those of us who didn't already have 10 grad degrees. She also didn't know how to stop teaching. She eked out a meager grad student existence while pouring herself into her studies & her students. She spent long, LONG hours with me, a pair of scissors, & my essays. She became a dear friend, whose company I have missed since she went on to teach FT when she'd finished her PhD.

This last teacher taught me to form an argument, & she taught me enough logic that when I enrolled in the formal class, I earned a final grade of 103 for the semester. She taught me to think clearly & be more careful & purposeful, not just with what I write in a formal essay but with what I say in day-to-day life.

Friendships have been preserved because of the lessons she taught me, & she helped me choose a good school to move to after jr college, convinced me to apply for scholarships, & helped me later when I bit off more than I could chew when I decided to do a major class project on a little poet named TS Eliot, despite having not yet studied either of the world wars or Dante. She knew everything, & therefore was happy to be a crash course in everything. Her guided tour of the DMA was priceless.

And so, abruptly ended, is my tale. I hope someday I can be a character in someone else's history of how they learned to write. Dr. Whosit will be a fine title, thank you.

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